Japan is in the middle of a mobile phone revolution thanks to a set of recently introduced regulations.
It used to be impossible for mobile phone users in Japan to unlock their handsets, which meant that every phone was tied to a network with no possibility of using them elsewhere. This effectively locked customers into one of the big three service providers and stifled competition. This all changed when regulations were introduced in 2015, and it is now possible to use any unlocked handset with a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO).
The advent of Japan MVNO carriers is great news for those looking for a cheaper alternative to the traditionally lengthy and costly contracts available from the incumbent networks.
What is an MVNO?
The traditional network carriers are referred to as Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and control everything within their network, from customer service to infrastructure, which includes building and maintaining the cables and cell towers that keep everything running.
An MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator, pays an MNO (like NTT DoCoMo in Japan) for space on their network, whether that is minutes or megabytes. MVNOs are able to offer competitive pricing because they purchase large amounts of network space from the carriers, giving them access to wholesale prices without the extraneous upkeep costs. These savings are then passed on to the customer.
Savings aside, these companies can also offer more flexible contracts because they are not competing in the same space as the larger businesses. This means that prices are more competitive, as are the contracts. Read on for more on that as well as the many other advantages of using an MVNO in Japan.
Advantages of Japan MVNO Carriers
Keep your Current Phone
As long as you have an unlocked mobile phone, Japanese MVNOs allow you to use that instead of an expensive Japan-only model. Not only is this cheaper, but keeping your contacts, photos and friends lists intact is convenient too. If you are looking to keep your current phone then changing the SIM is far more convenient than carrying around two handsets! With a traditional contract phone you might be able to tether your preferred phone for an additional fee, thereby giving you access to the internet, but carrying around two phones will quickly grow tiresome and may incur additional costs.
Have a Japanese Telephone Number
One of the benefits of having a SIM card is having a Japanese telephone number, which is useful for signing up for services like credit cards, finding an apartment, or even joining a new gym. None of these will require you to talk on your phone but you will be required to provide a telephone number. Having your own number might not be of benefit to short-term visitors, but for those looking to stay a little longer or looking to conduct business it will prove useful. Note that not all Japan MVNO carriers offer a local telephone number and may offer data only, but there are some that offer both.
Get Generous Data Plans
For visitors or travellers looking to navigate the streets of Tokyo or find the latest train times, the generous data limits and quick internet speeds provided by Japan MVNO providers are an ideal option. If you use your phone in this manner, then consider purchasing a data only SIM card and using a VOIP service to stay in touch.
Have a Short-term Contract
Contracts are plentiful in the Japanese mobile phone space. Unfortunately they are almost always two years long and very difficult to end. For visitors looking to stay for two years or less, or those unsure about how long they will be in Japan, this makes the already expensive contracts even less appealing. Fortunately, Japanese MVNO contracts are usually much shorter, some as short as a month.
Disadvantages of Japan MVNO Carriers
They are Data-focused
One of the downsides with using these new Japan MVNO providers is that they tend to be data focused, which means that if you like using your phone to talk for a long time and do not use VOIP services like Skype, you may end up spending more. This will vary between companies, but will also depend upon how you use your phone.
They Still have Fixed Contracts
Despite being shorter, MVNOs in Japan do still tend to have fixed contracts. These will vary from one month upwards, a true disadvantage if you’re staying short-term, especially considering the potential termination fees involved.
There is Japanese Paperwork
A more well-known headache for foreigners is the Japanese love of paperwork. The major network operators and many MVNOs require their customers to have a Japanese bank account, proof of address in Japan (not including short-term residences) and, paradoxically, a Japanese telephone number. None of these will be available immediately upon arriving in Japan, which makes a foreigner-focused MVNO like Sakura Mobile a more attractive option.
Sakura Mobile Has all the Advantages, None of the Disadvantages
Sakura Mobile offer all their services in English which means an English language contract, English language website and English speaking customer support.
With no contract termination fees you are free to use a Sakura Mobile SIM card or mobile WiFi hotspot for however long you intend to stay in Japan, so you can use their services for the duration of your stay without being penalized for shorter trips or an unplanned departure.
For those without a Japanese bank account or credit card Sakura Mobile accepts foreign credit cards and convenience store payments.
With Sakura Mobile offering competitive rates for international calls, they are also a smart choice for those looking to phone home frequently.
Japanese MVNOs are on the Rise
Thanks to some forward thinking legislation, competition has returned to the Japanese mobile phone market once more. Japan MVNO usage has risen by 65% in the last year alone and the trend is set to continue. With their flexible plans, affordable pricing and ease of use, companies like Sakura Mobile are making it easier and cheaper than ever for foreigners to use a mobile phone without worrying about the many problems typically associated with Japanese carriers. However you choose to stay connected, enjoy your time in Japan!